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How to Make a Simple Watercolor Background Using Sublimation Markers
(plus a cool masking technique!)

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For most of my life, I’ve been a rule-follower, but I’ve learned that when it comes to crafting, rules are made to be broken! Today I’m going to show you how easy it is to create a simple watercolor background using sublimation markers. Then we’re going to break a sublimation “rule” to create another cool effect – one that will help you show off your beautiful watercolor backgrounds with pizzazz!!! Are you ready? Let’s go!

What You’ll Need

Some of the materials used in this project were provided by Artesprix in exchange for this post, but all opinions are my own.

Use code SUBLIMATION to save 10% on your order at Artesprix. Does not apply to heat presses or bundle deals.

Create the Simple Watercolor Background 

The first thing we are going to do is create the simple watercolor background using a gel printing plate.

Gel Press Plate
  1. Use two or more shades of markers to color on the gel plate or plastic bag . (Darker colors give the best results.) Be sure that the colored area is larger than the blank you plan to use.
Creating a Simple Watercolor Background with Sublimation Markers
  1. Spritz the colored area with rubbing alcohol. You can use a lot or a little. I was pretty liberal with mine.
Creating a Watercolor Background with Sublimation Markers
  1. After spritzing, the marker colors will start to bead up and expand slightly. You can either leave them just like this for a dotted look or tilt the gel plate back and forth and from side to side to slightly blend the colors. 
  1. Press the clean paper onto the gel plate and rub slightly with your fingers until the paper is covered with ink. Peel the paper off the gel plate, turn it over (face up) and let it dry. (Note: You only need to use a piece of paper that is about ¼ inch larger on all sides than your blank. I cut a letter-size sheet of copy paper into fourths for the tutorial projects.) Don’t worry if the transfers seem light or dull. The colors will brighten a lot when pressed!
Simple Watercolor Backgrounds from Sublimation Markers

Create and Apply the Stencil Mask

Now that we’ve created our simple watercolor background, it’s time to start breaking the rules! 

If you’ve followed any of my other tutorials on how to use sublimation markers, you know that I always apply the design using heat-resistant tape on the BACK of the blank. Why? Because if you accidentally apply the tape so that it’s between your design and the blank, the design won’t transfer. The sublimation ink will not penetrate the heat-resistant tape.

But we’re going to use that fact to our advantage and create a stencil mask using – you guessed it – heat-resistant tape!

What is a stencil mask?

A stencil mask is just the opposite of a stencil. When you cut a stencil, you apply paint or ink to the cut-out areas. But when you use a stencil mask, paint or ink is applied over it, and the areas under the mask are left blank.

How do you make a stencil mask?

I used two different methods to create the stencil masks for this tutorial. 

Method 1: Cut with an X-acto Knife

For the geometric design on the cross ornament, I simply used an X-acto knife to cut ⅛ inch strips of heat-resistant tape and applied it to the blank in a random pattern.

Sublimated Cross with a stencil mask and simple watercolor background

Method 2: Cut using a Digital Cutter

To create the heart and monogram designs, I used my Silhouette Portrait.

Sublimated Heart Ornament with Love You design and simple watercolor background
Sublimated Bag Tag with a Simple Watercolor Background
  1. Create your cut file in Silhouette Studio. I started with the “Love You” design by Amanda McGee, Silhouette Design Store ID 395981 and duplicated and resized the heart several times for accents.
Creating a Stencil Mask for Sublimation
  1. Use scissors to cut a piece of protective paper larger than your design. If you don’t have any protective paper, try parchment paper or the paper liner left over from adhesive vinyl designs you’ve already cut and weeded. 

Note: I experimented with freezer paper but it did not work as well as the protective paper for two reasons: 

  • The protective paper is more transparent, so you can still see the grid markings on the mat after it’s applied. This helps you position your design in the correct area to be cut.
  • The protective paper was easier to remove from the sticky side of the tape in the small areas where I cut through both layers. The freezer paper left bits of paper fiber behind.
  1. Apply heat-resistant tape to the protective paper. For designs less than ⅝ inch tall, you will only need one strip of tape. 
Creating a Stencil Mask for Sublimation

For larger designs (like the monogram) overlap strips of tape.

Creating a Stencil Mask for Sublimation
  1. Cut the design. I used the Vinyl, Glossy cut settings (Blade 1, Force 10, Speed 5, Passes 1) for a single layer of tape. You only want to cut through the tape, not the protective paper. 

    If you overlapped the tape for a larger design, adjust your settings or use 2 passes (or both) in order to cut cleanly through the overlapped tape. Changing to a force setting of 18 worked for me, but your ideal setting may be different.
  1. When the cutting is complete, peel away the excess heat-resistant tape from around the design. (This is just like weeding vinyl.) 
Creating a Stencil Mask for Sublimation
  1. Remove the design from the mat. Single pieces, like the small hearts or the monogram, can be pulled directly off the mat and applied to the blank just like a sticker. 

    For more detailed designs, or designs with multiple pieces, cover the weeded design with a piece of clear transparent tape, then lift the transparent tape gently to remove the design from the protective paper. (This is just like using transfer tape on an adhesive vinyl design.)

    Remove any protective paper that’s left on the back of the heat-resistant tape.
Creating a Stencil Mask for Sublimation
  1. Apply the stencil mask to the blank and burnish with your finger or a squeegee. Remove the transparent tape.
Creating a Stencil Mask for Sublimation

Get Ready to Press!

  1. Trim the watercolor background so that it’s slightly larger than the blank. 
  1. Place the watercolor background face-up on your work space. Center the blank, face-down, onto the design. Secure the blank to the design with heat-resistant tape. The watercolor transfers are very “ink-heavy” and the ink tends to migrate so try to tape the paper as snugly as possible against the blank.
  1. Arrange the layers in what’s often called a “Sublimation Sandwich”. The “bread” will be two pieces of protective paper, one on top and one on bottom. Each piece should be larger than the copy paper/design. The “filling” is the sublimation blank with the design taped to it. Place the colored design face-down, with the blank facing up. When you press, the only thing that will be between the heat source and the design is one layer of protective paper.
Creating a Simple Watercolor Background Sublimation Design

Press

  1. Set your heat press to the recommended temperature for your blank. The heart and cross metal ornaments were pressed with firm pressure at 400 degrees for 75 seconds. The plastic bag tag was pressed with firm pressure at 400 degrees for 60 seconds. Instructions for each type of Artesprix blank can be found on their website.
  1. If using a home iron, set it to the highest setting (usually Linen), and consult the Artesprix website for guidance on how long to press. 
  1. When you’re finished pressing, do a “peek test” before removing the paper. Lift a corner of the transfer paper and check to see that the design has transferred and the colors are bright. If not, press for a few more seconds. (The paper will be hot so you may want to wear protective gloves!!!) Allow the blank to cool.
  1. Once the blank is cool, gently remove the paper without sliding and peel off the masking to reveal the design. 

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Each of the watercolor backgrounds I created was simple, yet very unique. It was so cool to see how vivid they looked after they were pressed. And I think the masking technique really kicked it up a notch!

Sublimated Cross, Heart, and Monogrammed Bag Tag using Simple Watercolor Backgrounds

So go grab some markers for yourself and have fun experimenting with these techniques! Then come share your projects with me in the Silhouette Crafters by Design Facebook group. It’s always fun to see what you create!

Until next time,

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